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Columns

‘For a Socialist Future’ Posters Deserve Our Skepticism

What we really need is ‘enlightened administration’ at the local level.

By Henry N. Brooks, Contributing Opinion Writer
Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column usually appears on alternate Thursdays.

I’ve been seeing signs outside Canaday, Sever, and the Science Center advertising a “socialist future,” and I have to say I’m not entirely opposed — provided we’re talking about the same socialism.

By socialism, I mean government intervention on a small scale. Think Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which draws revenues from oil companies to distribute an annual monetary stipend to state residents. That model is overwhelmingly supported by Alaskans and has shown sustainable growth over its five-decade lifespan (in addition to spillover economic benefits). It’s also smarter than the average wealth transfer, taking into account fund size, growth, and government spending needs in its calculation of dividend amount. If this is socialism, it’s socialism with an economic conscience.

Or think North Dakota. The state-run Bank of North Dakota was founded in 1919 by the Non-Partisan League (a party of ex-socialists) to shield farmers from high-cost, out-of-state loans. Today, the bank extends low-interest credit to farmers, students, and local businesses. This model, which saw profits even at the height of the great recession, has now inspired Los Angeles residents to consider a similar bank for themselves.

Many of us were taught the failures of old-school socialism as children — its grandiose world-building schemes and dreams of a new “Soviet man,” which failed to convince citizens amid food shortages and rampant corruption. We learned that China’s Communist Party voted for market-based reforms after Mao’s death to lessen the suffering of millions.

Strangely, the new socialist models seem to have inherited a penchant for politics from on high. The Democratic Socialists of America— the U.S.’s largest and fastest-growing socialist organization — commit in their platform to “internationalist politics,” “deeper cross-national ties” between workers, and nationalizing key industries. Even from a grassroots activist organization, these slogans evoke the Soviet world-stage mentality of old. “No ‘rank-and-file activism’ outside of global ends” seems to be the message.

Yet it’s not hard to envision a different sort of big government: public banks and credit unions at the state level, municipal social safety nets, and tailored tax-and-spend policies designed for local contexts. These models of public economic reform would emphasize proximity, accountability, and direct democracy over the diffuse solidarities invoked by the DSA and generations of past socialists.

Public economic reform of a local variety ought to be more fashionable among politicos nowadays than it seems to be. It appeals to the coveted blue-collar rural voter (if Alaska and North Dakota are any indication) as well as to coastal liberals, underscoring a rare point of agreement among Americans across the political spectrum. It also seizes on a burgeoning skepticism toward the traditional mechanisms of power (trust in local government exceeded trust in government generally by a whopping 48 percent in 2014).

As I’ve argued in the past, the tradition of the New Deal affords us a trove of democratic strategies with which to empower reform. But America’s first go at big government was also clunky in certain ways, with its bloated federal bureaucracies and frequent non-compliance by the states. For a second go, we need to reinfuse politics with a feel for the local.

Support for this idea is longstanding. Conventional wisdom going back to Plato has held that a country’s size determines what can or cannot be achieved politically. One common retort to public health care is that America is much larger than, say, Sweden or Norway (both of which provide that service with taxpayer funds). What if instead we re-envisioned the American public services model? Could we work toward fifty Nordic-style systems?

Another example is job training programs. Why does the federal government have an entire agency devoted to organizing these? The division of labor idea suggests that states might more effectively pursue this task, specializing in populations for which they have a better sense and closer contact. I’m not saying cut federal funding — just the federal bureaucrats.

Naturally, I’m skeptical of the “socialist future” advertised around campus. I don’t imagine common-sense reform is their priority, nor am I convinced that justice — whether, as they claim, for separated immigrant families or others — requires class-based organizing.

I agree though that the moment is ripe for new experiments in good government. That’s why I propose gathering around the call for “enlightened administration” from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904. All (including radicals) are welcome.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Currier House. His column usually appears on alternate Thursdays.

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